Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Surprisingly for a happy atheist, the approach of Easter does not overwhelm me with chocolate- and bunny-related excitements. Instead, I begin to feel anxious about the four-day double-bank-holiday-whammy some months earlier, berating myself for not being invited on a surprise minibreak by the man of my dreams, and bitching inwardly about the gaggles of beautiful, beboyfriended hipsters who get the prime tables in pub garden sunshine and sit there all afternoon getting pleasantly drunk on lager without showing a hint of muffin top, while I stay home alone getting my faded knickers in a twist about the previous week’s American Idol results.

With true ‘face your fears’ gusto, in recent years I’ve done almost anything to sprint out of London over Easter. Last year I set myself the challenge of walking Hadrian’s Wall, solo. I went a bit mad by the end but it was worth it – I look back on the experience with a great deal of satisfaction and fondness. This year I thought I’d do something a bit easier, and booked to go on a meditation retreat, where I figured I’d do lots of sitting around and read books.

It was not easier.

But it was not bad, either.

My last travel adventure was to the pop-up capitalist city of Dubai, and I took to my destination like a duck to desert. Turns out that the opposite of Dubai is the campus of Nottingham University on a weekend when Thich Naht Hanh is visiting.

Thursday 5 April
I get off the train and drag my luggage into a nearby cafĂ© where, in full knowledge of my impending vegan six days, I buy an emergency ham baguette and a brick of cherry and almond cake. I have conveniently forgotten about the old ‘your stomach is as big as your fist’ adage. I take a taxi to the university, check into my room and, within seconds, have wolfed them both. Turns out that many years of hard graft on the eating front has transformed my stomach into the size of a massive baguette and a big slab of cake.

My room is fine but the insulation is poor – every time someone else on the corridor lets their door slam shut, I feel like I’ve just been on the receiving end of an Oscar-worthy flounce. Still, this is the same person who, in 1993, fell asleep standing up outside Our Price on Kensington High Street while waiting for Charlotte to meet me, so I don’t think a few door bangs are going to beat me. Outside my window is a beautiful birch tree, covered in catkinny type things. There are no leaves yet but it’s just about to pop. I examine the timetable and try to work out when I’m going to be able to do all this loafing around I’d planned. Things look awfully hectic for a Zen retreat. I lie on my bed in the sunshine and read my book until dinner. I feel happy and a bit intrigued.

The next five days are all about Mindfulness, a secular branch of Zen Buddhist meditation that encourages people to focus on the present moment through their breath. By bringing one's awareness to the breath and the body, the hope is that the stresses caused by the imagined future and the completed past will be put into perspective and, eventually, dissolve. Part of mindfulness is that it’s pretty much constant; the idea is that it’s possible to live fully in the breath, to focus on the present moment so often that peace becomes inevitable. The weekend is led by Thich Naht Hanh, an 86-year-old Vietnamese Buddhist monk who now lives in Plum Village, a community of monks and other mindful visitors that’s based in a hamlet in the Dordogne. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. for his efforts in opposition to the Vietnam war and I’ve paid £495 to spend six days and five nights in his milieu. As far as possible, the retreat will follow the routine that the brothers and sisters lead when they’re back in France. We’ll get up early, meditate, exercise, eat, hear a talk or two, meditate some more, share some things, eat and rest, much of the time in Noble Silence (which I fear is just normal silence rebranded to sound less shit).

Tonight’s dinner is my first foray into the Noble bit of silence. I often eat alone without speaking, sitting at my desk and reading the Guardian online, or loafing on my sofa at home watching TV, but it’s not really so much an eating ‘experience’ – rather, it's often not until I’m painfully ravenous that I start planning what food I'm going to eat, so then I have to prepare something in a matter of seconds to avoid collapsing into a writhing heap on my kitchen floor, using my dying breaths to cram Weight Watchers Nacho Cheese Flavour Tortilla Snacks into my mouth. Usually I end up consuming cereal, my spoon hand moving so fast between the bowl and my mouth that it threatens to stir up a tiny dust tornado in my sitting room. After the first couple of bites, my aching hunger passes; I become distracted by reading or viewing and stop noticing the fact that I’m eating until my portion is gone, when I experience a brief moment of surprise that it's all over, followed by a wave of disappointment.

As I queue for the canteen, already in silence, I wonder what it'll feel like eating silently in a room full of a couple of hundred people, and panic gently about the completely expected but still unwelcome absence of meat and hard liquor. One day without them is fine, but I'm not sure how I'll cope with five in a row. Reaching the food zone, I feel a rush of relief as I spot a few key treats. I help myself to soup, a plate of salad, a dollop of houmous, a bread roll and an uncool amount of peanut butter. This is going to be a breeze, I think to myself, sitting down at a table and salivating at the thought of guilt-free Sun Pat. Then I notice that no one else is eating. This is very annoying but I sit there and try to look impassive (not one of my special strengths). Once all eight places have been taken, someone who's obviously been here before picks up a laminated card that is sitting on the table, and passes it to my neighbour. "Would you like to read the Five Contemplations?" she asks quietly. I am immediately piqued with jealousy that I was not asked. Do I not look like I am amazing at reading aloud? I start to question my existence. The man next to me accepts the card and starts to read. To be fair, he does it well.

"[1] This food is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard, loving work. [2] May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it. [3] May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation. [4] May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming. [5] We accept this food so that we may nurture our sister- hood and brotherhood, strengthen our community, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings." A secular grace. I love it. While the contemplations are being read, we all stare at our food. Once I relinquish the pangs of hurt that I am not the one reading/shining, I realise that it is better to be the one that is being read to. This is a shock. I find myself thinking about the people who worked in the peanut butter factory, the kiln that fired the plate, the machine that washed the last person's saliva off my knife and fork. And then we bow, and we eat.

My food tastes delicious: fresh, alive, healthy. Cursing my panic baguette, I feel full after about half my meal has gone, but waste is clearly not cool so I slowly force down the rest. I will take smaller portions in future. Every fifteen or twenty minutes, one of the monks stands and rings a meditation bell three times, signalling the start of an adult game of musical statues. Everyone freezes - perhaps putting their cutlery down, but certainly not finishing a mouthful. The bell's rings are long, maybe twenty seconds - while each one sounds, we are meant to breathe in and out three times, nine mindful breaths during a meal of mindfulness. Despite the silence and the attempts at focus created by the contemplations, I still find that I am grateful for the bell as my mind has wandered far from the campus. When I finish my food, I copy the others, bowing once towards my empty plate and once at my dinner companions. Other than the contemplations, we've not exchanged a word. I return to my room.

From 19:00, we start to gather in the East Midlands Conference Centre, which has been renamed the Dharma Hall for the duration of the retreat. I take a seat near the back. As socked feet file in quietly, I manufacture a face of pleasant gentleness and look around me. There are several hundred of us present, about 60% women, vastly white with a few Asians. The age ranges from sleepy young children to plenty of pensioners - I am pretty much bang in the middle and feel fine about that. There was a small part of me that wondered if there might be any hunky young meditating males but now I'm here I realise the length of my longshot. Plus I've recently made the acquaintance of a new man who's spending Easter in France, so I have zero interest in Nottingham-based flirting but am instead focusing on getting the right train next Tuesday so I'll be back in his arms at 15:44 as planned. As ever, I win at living in the now.

There are a few inner-sanctum types who've clearly done this all before and want as many people as possible to witness their rope awareness credentials, but as I bristle I'm aware that my irritation is just my own ego disliking not knowing what's going on. The bell rings and Thich Nhat Hanh enters. Thay (as he is known by all - it means 'Brother' and is pronounced like what you do with the yellow ribbon round the old oak tree) walks slowly on stage, deliberately, peacefully, mindfully. There is no sense of momentum. It is just a case of watching someone put one foot in front of the other in his own time. His walk is awesome. Then he starts talking.

Oh, this is wisdom. I can't do justice to his messages here, but his introductory talk moved me in many ways. Thay works a lot with metaphors - tonight's was about the mind as a garden that needs to be cultivated. In the right conditions, the good seeds will grow, but work is required. Without effort, the soil will harden and dry out - only the pernicious weeds will be able to push through. A good gardener must work to cultivate the right conditions and not sit back year after year, expecting wonderful things to happen. Happiness takes effort. You cannot, he claims, experience true happiness with an uncultivated mind. There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path. There is no path to peace: peace is the path.

Equally, Thay explains, you cannot experience true happiness without suffering. Suffering and happiness are intrinsically connected, as the left and right hand sides of a sheet of paper. This really, really resonates with me. It is the difficulties I've had that allow me to experience such joy in the present. I am happier now than I've ever been, but with a genuine awareness of suffering and a feeling that it is always there, inside me. There is no point running from it - it's part of being alive. We must cherish these seeds of suffering - not cultivate them, but not try and get rid of them, either - for to get rid of the seeds of sadness would be to get rid of *all* seeds.

Enlightenment is in every breath, he says. By connecting with our breath, we connect with our body, and then we experience, viscerally, the miracle - the *miracle* - of our own existence. I am in tears. In 2011 I spent about an hour genuinely appreciating the miracle of my own existence, up from about six seconds in 2010. It is not enough. All we have is our breath and our body. Being in touch with those things, being grateful for them, opens up a connection with everyone else. Suddenly you are a better friend, a better daughter, a better lover. Cultivating mindfulness in ourselves benefits the whole world. Big words, big ideas - but why not? They're not arrogant concepts. They're not about gaining power to control others. They're about making the world a better place through loving peace. I am profoundly inspired.

We walk back from the Dharma Hall mindfully, slowly and in Noble Silence, feeling the sole of each footstep making contact with our home, our planet. It takes twice as long to return to the hall of residence as it had taken me to get to the Hall before the talk, but I don't feel cold. I feel really quite alive. I know I'm being cheesy but I don't care. It's lovely. I've not been wearing any make-up, my daywear was in the hinterland between pyjamas and convalescence and it feels great. Noble Silence lasts from the end of the evening talk (at about 21:30) to after breakfast the following morning (around 09:00). I wonder whether I'd like to become a monk. My plate is piled high with things - choir, friends, uke band, dayjob and writing two books - and I'm about to start a counselling course and potentially fall head over heels. Maybe moving to Plum Village would be good for me. Not sure I'd want to shave my head though. I stress lightly about tomorrow’s early start.

Friday 6 April
Unexpectedly, the 05:45 alarm call isn't too painful and there's no denying that there's magic in the air as I walk across the frosty field to the Dharma Hall, hundreds of people gravitating silently towards it from a variety of directions, all moving softly, slowly, mindfully, one pace every two or three seconds. Once we're settled in the hall, some sitting on chairs, some on mats and cushions at the front, we're given a guided meditation – mostly things are completely silent but every now and then, one of the monks will give us something to visualise. I focus for a few seconds after each suggestion, but find my mind drifting to other topics. I become unnaturally fixated on when I am going to find time to shower before my Tuesday afternoon date. When I walked Hadrian’s Wall I spent most of the week in a mild flap about catching my return train, despite the fact that I knew it was going to be fine and that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it even if it wasn’t fine. Eventually I realised that my default internal setting is ‘mild flap’. I got very cross about that and stopped – but then found that I had nothing to fill the brain space. This panicked me. Now I am on a retreat and there are hundreds of people around me, all showing me the way. You ditch the mild flap, you focus on your breathing, your mind clears and… that’s it. There is no spoon.

The low point of the meditation was when we chanted along to one of the Buddhist sutras and I was hit by the combined force of several strangers’ eye-watering morning breath. I can only imagine that there is some Zen thing about not brushing your teeth before breakfast but I’m not happy about it. I resolve to sit at the back tomorrow.

Following the meditation, we are given five exercise options. I opt to do a quick burst of advanced yoga, which is made slightly more complicated by the fact that we are doing it on a carpet and I’m wearing tights. My downward dog slips into a plank on more than one occasion. Then back to the halls of residence, still in silence, to confront the unique terror of a second unfamiliar buffet. No one knows what is what and, in true rookie style, I end up putting a large dollop of unmarked honey on my porridge before realising it’s actually Marmite. Embarrassed about waste, I covertly ditch the bowl and get a yoghurt and some fruit before moving mindfully over to the beverage area, where I take the last sachet of Twinings green tea and a mug of hot water. Eventually I find a seat and, following the reading of the contemplations, begin by trying to put my teabag in my mug of hot water. As I pick up the Twinings sachet I find that it’s empty. Someone put their empty sachet BACK IN THE BOX. HOW IS ONE SUPPOSED TO STAY ZEN THROUGHOUT THESE CRISES?

All of a sudden, I’m struggling. I’ve been here around 24 hours and it’s sinking in that I’ll be here for the rest of today, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, all day Monday and half of Tuesday. It seems like a very, very long time indeed, and I’m not feeling very mindful at all - or, at least, my mind is not full of the right stuff. Instead I’m constantly planning for the next hurdle. I’m aware that this is vintage me, that I always like to know what is happening and have control over my timetable, but here that’s impossible – stuff overruns, I don’t have a watch, I never know if I’m going to have time to have a shower or if I’ve got enough time to read a good chunk of my book. Of course, I also know it doesn’t matter, that this is precisely why I’m here – to relinquish control and to focus only on my breathing. But all I’m focusing on is 15:44 next Tuesday.

I snooze through the first half of the morning’s Dharma talk, where Thay outlines the importance of the bell, and then we gear up for walking meditation. I'd imagined a relaxed stroll, but it's much more intense than that: an hour of pacing ohhhhh-so-slowly, taking one very small step only every six or seven seconds, hundreds of us following Thay in total silence around the university’s beautiful grounds. At first it seems massively unnatural to move so unhurriedly and I feel guilty about engaging in nightmare behaviour that on Oxford Street would quickly and justifiably lead to a stabbing. Then, gradually, it gets really quite cool. I can’t explain what happens, but the shift seems to occur when I accept that I don’t know where I’m going, nor when I’m going to get there, nor what route I’m going to take. The only things I do know is that I’m the only place I can be, and that I'm not in a rush to get anywhere else. As a metaphor for life and death, it’s pretty obvious, but that doesn’t detract from its impact.

As I reach the end of the circuit, I see that Thay has taken a seat under a tree and is drinking some tea (vodka?) from a stainless steel thermos that one of the brothers has carried for him in a brown cloth bag. The children are in a semi-circle in front of him: he shows them how to ring the mindfulness bell, and lets them have a go. We sit and stand around the tree, still silent, just watching, no hurry. Eventually I turn and walk slowly back to the hall, still at mindfulness pace, and feel a bit extraordinary. It’s weird, but positive.

I can’t help but doze off again in the afternoon’s guided meditation session but perk up when I hear about the Dharma Sharing families. Everyone on the retreat has been divided into small groups of around ten people, and we will meet each afternoon at 16:00 in one of the other halls of residence. It’s like an AA meeting (I imagine) and this seems slightly edgy and glamorous. We sit in a circle, introduce ourselves, and talk a bit about a topic suggested by our leader, a gorgeous but socially uncomfortable Scot who’s training to become a monk and lives in Plum Village. We go round the room introducing ourselves and then, gradually and at random, someone will ‘bow in’ and start talking. When they’re done, they bow out and we sit in silence until the next person is inspired to share.

The first person to talk is a lady about my mother's age, who's been on one of these retreats twice before, and is struggling a little bit but knows that things get easier as the days progress. She only says a couple of sentences and then bows out. The next person is a girl my own age who rants angrily about it all, explaining that she's an addict who can't help but compare this retreat to others she's been on - she's stressing about the weather, about the distance between her hall of residence and the Dharma Hall, about the people she knows and whether or not they're having a good time, about the food. She wants to stop beating herself up, she says, but it's very hard for her. She lets rip with a tidal wave of moans and remorse - almost all of which sound familiar - and then all of a sudden she comes to a reluctant halt after four or five minutes.

Other than a couple of whispered pleases and thank yous in corridors, I haven’t spoken to anyone since I was on the train yesterday morning. I bow in and explain that I heard of Thay a few years ago when I was researching secular meditation techniques, that I'd booked this retreat at Christmas when I was feeling a bit low, but that I am now madly in lust with a virtual stranger and all I can think about is how much I do not want to be anywhere near freaking Nottingham and that I'd gladly take a partial refund and spend it on getting to his mum's house in France so we could go on our second date. It is an overwhelming relief to tell my story and make strangers laugh. I have a palpable sense of the tension easing away as I share: it feels emotional and wonderful - I am extraordinarily grateful to these strangers for listening to me. After a flurry lasting a couple of minutes, I bow out.

One by one, the rest of our group take their turn. I am surprised by how much everyone else seems to be finding things hard too, and I feel substantially less alone. That said, I'm also aware I should be living in the now but that all I seem to be doing is planning what I'm going to wear next Tuesday. It is not cool. But then, I never was.

There is anarchy at supper as two people speak out loud for reasons other than to read the five contemplations: one woman asks me if I think the soup contains lentils and another comments that it's very salty. I notice too that the general walking pace is noticeably quickening. Rebellion is afoot. But then things calm down again in the evening, when we have a thing called Deep Relaxation/Touching The Earth, led by Sister Chan Khong, one of Thay's most respected followers. I get behind the Deep Relaxation concept wholeheartedly, falling soundly asleep while everyone else is still unrolling their six billion princess and the pea mats and cushions, a special rectangular one to support their lumbar region, a cannister shaped mini-bolster under their ankles etc. I'm all (literally all) for comfort but the ostentatious amount of meditation and relaxation paraphernalia that some of my fellow retreatees seem to require is a little questionable. BUT WHAT DO I KNOW? So I fall asleep on my yoga mat and wake up god knows how long later and our 74-year-old teacher is singing something in Vietnamese to the tune of You Are My Sunshine. Next she appears to sing the same thing in French but I can't make head nor tail of it. I make out six different (loud) snores around me and am struggling to conceive how anyone is finding this conducive to peace. Someone a few bodies away sneezes and farts simultaneously. I get the giggles. It is as relaxing as the spider house at the end of Arachnophobia.

But then Touching The Earth turns out to be something quite lovely, all about standing up straight and being proud of the good in you and then lying on your stomach and venting the bad, pouring it into the earth because the earth absorbs everything we give it (milk, honey, excrement, blood) and produces spring water in return. (We don't mention lava.) We must do the same - absorb all we're given and return purity. We all express gratitude for our parents and the wonderful gifts they've given us, and then we lie on our fronts and pour out our frustrations about anything we've lacked. Once again, it's the sharing of this, seeing hundreds of people face down on the floor, all venting about their parents, that makes me realise afresh that we're all in this together and have been since the very beginning. We stand up again and do the same thing for our spiritual family, our teachers, and for our nation. It's pretty affecting, although I feel a bit left out because I don't have a spiritual teacher.

There's something startling about this complete acceptance, this expectation that there is suffering in all of us, that every single part of existence involves both joy and pain. It's pretty unfamiliar, this sense that it's OK to feel pain - that it's not something to run from or be ashamed of, nor to try and avoid - because to run from pain would be to run from an intrinsic part of oneself, like running from one's own blood. It's a big relief, actually. I walk back to the hall slowly afterwards and sleep soundly.

Saturday 7 April
Following Morningbreathgate yesterday, I decide to sit on the chairs for meditation but am still plagued by the bodily functions of strangers. The average gap between phlegm-related incidents is circa six seconds. One time I manage to count to eleven before a cough or sniff occurs but the tidal wave of mucous that follows is so traumatic that I resolve to stop counting. Guided meditation is quite good - they sensibly try to provide an overall concept before reducing it to bullet points: "Breathing in, I feel at one with the earth. Breathing out, I feel at peace. In, earth. Out, peace." Some of the guides get a bit surreal and I wonder if Noel Fielding is conducting things from an anteroom. "Breathing in, I am aware that I am made of trees. Breathing out, I feel solid. In, trees. Out, solid."

After meditation is over, I turn left out of the Dharma Hall instead of right and take a twenty minute diversion to another part of the campus, away from everyone else. I am going to sent a postcard to my virtual stranger, and the feeling of stepping outside the timetable is exhilaration. I feel rebellious and joyful. Later on I bust someone using their Blackberry during walking meditation - they see me looking and smile ruefully. I feel smug that I only cracked as far as mailing a postcard: my phone is still in my room on airplane mode. I am desperate to join the covert Blackberry user but somehow resist.

Thay's third Dharma talk is really special. I'm not sure how he remembers it all - each time, he speaks for about two hours and covers an extraordinary amount of stuff. One of today's highlights is the suggestion that we need to meditate, to be mindful, in order to give up our superiority complex, our inferiority complex, and our equality complex. This is an extraordinary eye-opener for me and a reminder that I must get off the ladder and knock it to the ground. There is no ladder, there is no ratings system, and clinging on to one does not help in the search for peace or happiness. Thay talks about the interdependence of all things, how the flower is made of clouds because the clouds cause rain, how it's made of sunshine and earth and compost and minerals, that when you look at a rose, you can see soil and clouds within it. The flower is made only of non-flower elements.

Next he talks about cows, telling a story about how Buddha was with his monks and a rich guy came by in a flap and asked, "Have you seen my five cows? I've lost them and without them I will die." Buddha tells the man no, that he's sorry but he hasn't seen his cows, and the rich man scuttles off. Buddha turns to his monks and says, "How lucky you are - you have no cows to lose." We must all identify our cows - those things that we think make us happy, but which in fact may be the source of our complexity and our dissatisfaction. And we must let them go.

Then Thay does a long spiel about hands, and about acceptance and non-judgment, talking about how the left hand and the right hand are not one hand, but work together as one. Thay explains that he writes his many books and poems with his right hand, but his left hand does not get jealous. Then, when his left hand holds a nail to the wall, and his right hand accidentally hits his left fingers with a hammer, the left is not angry. It does not shout for justice. Instead, immediately the whole body feels pain, and instinctively the right hand puts down the hammer and rubs the left, taking care of it as it would care for itself, with love and compassion. We are all parts of one body.

Finally, he says that he can see his mother and father in his hand. His mother made him. She is always in him and always with him. She is in your hand. When you had a fever as a child, perhaps she put her hand on your head. She can still do that, he says. He puts his own right hand gently on his brow, and asks us all to do the same. Riddled with PMT, I lift my hand to my head and find that I am properly bawling. All around me it's the same - the room is full of people with their mummy's cool hand on their feverish brows. I am by no means the only person crying. It's a powerful reminder that we all need our mothers every now and then, even if we're an 86-year-old Vietnamese monk who's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A potent leveller that I won't forget in a hurry.

Zen turns to zoo at the end of the talk - one of the sisters tells us about Thay's calligraphy that is on sale in the shop, raising funds for Plum Village, and we all mindfully scramble outside to the trestle tables and stand three deep at the counter in a scene reminiscent of the bar at the Brixton Academy, mindfully waiting our turn to reserve the ones we want, mindfully jostling people out the way and mindfully sticking post-its on the ones we plan to mindfully hang in our homes to prove to our visitors how mindful we really are.

The second Dharma Sharing session this afternoon is great. I bow in almost straight away and admit to the group there's been something on my mind following Thay's talk. Is love a cow? Several of the group share powerful and interesting thoughts: love can be a cow if it takes you away from yourself, how if you need it to give you things then that isn't great, but that love is a journey that can help you see life in a wonderful and unique way. I am relieved that I don't have to dump my wondercrush after one date. Someone in the group admits that she has always worried about leaving out her left hand so much, that she's felt really guilty, and that Thay's talk was a real relief as she realised she didn't have to spend time panicking about that any more. I feel unusually balanced in comparison.

At dinner I realise that I have overdosed on houmous and can no longer use it to jazz up my salad. This is disappointing.

Sunday 8 April
I attend an 06:15 ceremony where more experienced followers make public declarations of intent called The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. It's quite impressive and moving but I am transfixed by the enormous quantity of illness in the Dharma Hall. Everyone is producing torrents of snot. I have a vital second date in just over fifty hours; sickness is not an option. Remaining peaceful in this situation is surely beyond any normal person. I spend the two hour ceremony taking shallow breaths through my shawl and trying to send positive vibes of health and fitness to my cells.

Regardless of Noble Silence, mealtimes are easily the least Zen part of each day. The theory is great: you get healthy, delicious food that hasn't harmed any animals. You sit down at a table. The five contemplations are awesome. Noble Silence is genuinely not just rebranded normal silence - it is profound and awesome. Not awesome is people who put their tray at a place on a table and then WAFT OFF AROUND THE CANTEEN FOR SIX HOURS GETTING VARIOUS HERBAL TEAS AND YOGHURTS WHILE THE REST OF US SIT THERE UNABLE TO EAT OUR RAPIDLY SOFTENING MUESLI UNTIL HE (it is always a man) RETURNS.

As the day progresses, I seem to be overwhelmed with ways to be UnZen. During Thay's mid-morning Dharma talk, he mentions Albert Camus' L'Etranger and some woman near me does a really audible "Mmmm," which in true language means: "I love that French book and am thus relating to Thay on a higher and more intelligent plane than those who did not go 'Mmmmm'." She needs to receive a firm reprimanding blow from the goose-down-filled Mallet of Smugness. Also in the queue for Mallet administration: people with £1500 digital cameras who don't know how to put them on mute, and people with £1500 digital cameras who know how to put them on mute but who choose not to. And Smuggy McSmugsons who really showily smell flowers and rosemary during walking meditation. YOU KNOW WHAT IT SMELLS LIKE, STOP TRYING TO LOOK SPIRITUAL AND IN TOUCH WITH NATURE. Or something compassionate.

Monday 9 April
You can always tell when I've loosened up, given in and started to enjoy something when I stop writing so much. I give myself permission to sleep late on Monday morning and feel absolutely delighted about that. NB a lie-in here is until 07:50. Straight after breakfast I walk back to the Dharma Hall for Thay's Question & Answer session. First the little kids go up on stage, then the teenagers, and finally the adults are allowed to put their queries to our Yoda. One teenager asks, 'What are the benefits of being a monk?' and I am vastly impressed with Thay's honesty when he admits that, simply, it is much easier to practice mindfulness this way. It's living in the 'normal' world, with all its distractions, that makes living mindfully (and thus being happy) so hard. Another asked, 'Do you have any cows?' and Thay says that even Buddhism can be a cow. I accidentally direct a stab of 'HA! TAKE THAT!' at all the mindfuller-than-thou acolytes sitting rapt on their custom meditation stools in the front, but then feel bad. I have cows too. The wondercrush moos loudly.

The final Dharma Sharing this afternoon is a bit emotional. As a seasoned visitor to several of London's most affordable therapists, talking about my feelings is as natural to me as urinating or wanting to have a smaller arse, but for the rest of my group, these things are a little less intuitive. It has thus been very rewarding seeing them relax into the sharing process. In this last session, our leader asks us to introduce our parents to the group (dead or alive) and say something we love about each of them. It's a bit emotional hearing about everyone's family and once again I realise the benefits that come from regularly remembering that we're all part of our own trees, and ultimately connected. I shuttle about my daily life, rarely thinking about the fact that every single human is carrying complex baggage passed down the generations. Sharing in this way brings perspective and peace. I tell the group that I'm grateful my parents are so open - that if they like you, you know about it, and if they don't, you know about that too. It can be tricky, but it also means I'm compulsively honest. I've seen a lot of people bottling a lot of stuff up, and I don't find it enviable. 

But the thing I keep coming back to is the flower that's made up entirely of non-flower elements: this duality of everything, sadness and happiness in each moment - you cannot have one without the other - happiness IS sadness and sadness IS happiness. A flower is made up of non-flower elements. Happiness is made up of non-happiness elements. Why is this so personally affecting? It's a valuable reminder that 'bad' days and dark times are inextricable from joyous times. The low moments are the inescapable, inevitable window to joy and compassion, and thus must be cherished and lived to the full. There is no need to run from anything any more.

Perhaps as a result of this revelation, I notice that I've finally slowed right down while I've been here. As the monks prepare for a talk, there is a certain amount of faffing on stage. In a comparable situation in London, I'd be checking my phone, writing an email, sending a text, or at the very least reading an edifying book. Here I have no phone and no book, so I am forced to sit quietly. At first, sitting was 'waiting', and waiting was wasteful and crap. But now I just sit. I'm not waiting. I'm in the moment. And that's fine. I hope I can take this away with me. 

Our final night's event is called a 'Be In', where many different groups of retreatees put on skits or sing songs for our entertainment. The small children are unacceptably cute, particularly a bouncy five year old in a Spiderman costume who pogoed his way through 'I like the roses'. The teenagers, however, are a profoundly effective contraceptive - while ten or fifteen awkward young people sing a peaceful song onstage, two boys attempt to beatbox over it. Their display is excruciating. How can they be so misguided as to think they are being cool, or that I might want to listen to their pathetic efforts? I squirm down low in my chair while cursing the fact that I hadn't been filming the whole thing, for it would surely be a YouTube sensation to rival Kony 2012. I am feeling the opposite of Zen when a man in his forties comes on stage and reads a poem he's written about the weekend. Really, if you're going to grab a microphone in a room full of several hundred people, and read them a poem that you wrote, that is four A4 pages long, front and back, surely you could try and make it NOT COMPLETELY CRAP? I am gobsmacked that he thinks this is a beneficial way for all of us to spend eight minutes, and despair at his lack of humility. Then I realise that I am judging him, which is not very humble at all. Inwardly, I feel ashamed and then a bit proud of my new self-awareness and self-acceptance. Outwardly I am sitting with my Dharma Sharing family and crying with laughter.

Tuesday 10 April
The sun shines brightly on our final morning and Thay's farewell talk is another game changer. I scribble a few notes in my book, banking the concepts for another time - right now I'm planning my outfit and wishing I'd packed different conditioner. Leaving the others sitting on a wall before their last lunch, I get into a minicab. I stare out of the window as we drive to the station and I marvel at the miracle of life. I've been doing a lot more of that, lately. It's good.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012


I'd always looked down on people who pay money to go Dubai, so when I booked my own return flight there in mid-January, I was given an exciting opportunity to self-loathe in a whole new way. The £330 I'd given Royal Brunei in return for the loan of one of their plane seats for seven hours each way - well, it was not only profoundly wasteful, bad for the environment and selfish, but it also proved without any opportunity for argument that I was a bad feminist and a terrible hypocrite. My excuse? I wanted some winter sun and my friend Dave lives there. By any normal standards, sunshine and friendship might be adequate reasons for choosing a holiday destination, but I do not have normal standards. I feel guilty about spending money when I should be saving, I feel guilty about going somewhere with a bad human rights record, I feel guilty about flying and contributing to the destruction of our ecosystem, and with so many other places on the planet growing hoarse with the volume at which they're yelling my name, I feel guilty about choosing the one who’s only muttering, “Sure, come here if you want, we’ve got good malls that sell the same stuff as your malls in London but at slightly higher prices.” But I wanted winter sun and I wanted to see Dave, so I tried to silence the voices, and I booked my flight.

Let's get one thing straight right away: Dave was great. This is not a blog to rate Dave, but if it was, out of a possible ten he’d score thirty. As a grown-up who chooses to live in Dubai, Dave will inevitably be implicated in some of my statements, but as a host, he was and is exemplary, leaving me a neatly-folded towelling dressing gown on my bed when I arrived, like I was in some sort of five star spa, and refusing to let me pay for dinner on almost any night. If you know Dave and you want to be looked after like a prince(ss), you should go see him. Ideally, however, you would probably be better off going and see him once he has moved somewhere else.

Dubai surprised me by not surprising me one iota. It was precisely how I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be a sunny place with lots of building work going on, where there's some dark shit happening politically but none of the expats really let themselves worry about that too much because they're all there to make lots of money and enjoy the fact that they can look in the mirror on any given day of the calendar year and note that they are looking healthily tanned. And that is what I found.

The good bits are: an old area called Al Bastakiya near the creek (which apparently wouldn't be there without Prince Charles and was pretty much the only thing recommended to me by all three of my ex-Dubai-tourist friends, presumably because it is literally the only bit of the city that seems to have a soul); the creek itself; the huge number of delicious restaurants; the desert; the tallest building in the world; the tear-jerking dancing fountains; the nature-defying aquariums; the affordable taxis and the sunshine.

The bad bits are: the ridiculous quantity of ceaseless building works - the ridiculous empty skyscrapers waiting dustily for more consumers to move in and spend and earn and spend and earn; the fact it's impossible to get anywhere on foot; the ridiculous disregard for the environment; the ridiculous human rights record (that is getting better, and yes, Dave's right, nothing's going to change if people just sit in the ivory tower of London scoffing about it - and he's also right that things are improving a good deal faster than they did in the West at a comparable point in our history BUT STILL. It's not ideal and I do feel like I'm condoning it by rocking up and giving them both of my tourist dollahs). Then there's the ridiculous gender inequality, the ridiculous unaccountability of the police and criminal 'justice' system and the ridiculous fact that it is impossible to get a burger and half a bottle of wine for £20.

There are only two reasons I can see why anyone would choose to move to Dubai: sunshine, and the pursuit of financial success due to the extraordinary business opportunities available in certain fields and the lack of income tax. Since no one who had ‘sunshine’ as their number one priority could conceivably choose Dubai since it's not very nice yet, then my ridiculously simplistic experiment can only conclude that all the expats are in Dubai because they want to make lots and lots of money. And although there's nothing inherently evil about that per se, it does make for a pretty one-dimensional living experience and perhaps accounts for the fact that most people I met either visibly or reputedly had fairly serious alcohol addictions. My own liver went from Code Amber to Code Marlborough Pinot Noir while I was there. On the morning after my first night, I was lying on a lounger in a beach club and was so hungover that I realised that the longed-for sound of the waves lapping a few feet away from my head was making me hyperventilate with irritation. It was even more irksome that I was being charged £20 to lie on a lounger to be tormented by the deafening wavelets. At weekends they charge £50, which is more than the lounger would have cost to buy and own permanently.

Dubai is not the kind of place you can go around working out the price difference between what you're paying there and what you'd pay at home. I mean, you have to do that if you're a tourist, because otherwise you will accidentally order a tuna melt and then, minutes later, receive a phonecall from your bank manager asking if you'd rather remortgage your home or use your grannie as a surety. But basically, the rule is, a) read the price in dirhams, b) go 'Jesus, that's a fuckload more than it would be at home,' and then c) move on with your life. I was excellent at a) and b) but consistently failed at c). Dave generously helped me cope by getting me so drunk most nights that I genuinely did not notice when he paid bills for me. This never, ever happens in normal life - I always, ALWAYS pay my way. But here, paying my way was not an option. I could not afford to. So I just grinned and tried to look pretty. The feminist me weeps for the girl I became in Dubai, although if I went out there to live and work, presumably I'd earn a fat Dubai salary too and could afford to eat in the swanky identical grit-free restaurants with the rest of them.

But I’m not going to move to Dubai. Certainly not in the next seventy years. I think one day it might be a really cool place to live. The climate is great and the infrastructure is getting there. Sure, most of it was built by immigrants working on slave wages with no employment protection, but I don’t see that argument stopping me buying an iPhone. Once the building work chills out, the population starts aging, some of the expats start sending teenage kids to school and university there, then maybe it’ll get some grit and some fire. Maybe Al Bastakiya will turn into the Dubai Hackney, with hipster parties that I’m too normal to hear about and pop-up cinemas showing ironic screenings of The Lost Boys. I’d like to see a few parks, I’d like more graffiti, more anger at injustice, more freedom of expression, more evidence that there’s more to life than earning and spending. Then I might move there.

But not yet.

I had a lot of fun. A lot, really I did, lots, really, did. And if you can stay with Dave, you will have an amazing time too. If you have a friend out there, even if it’s not Dave, you should go see him/her. It won’t be as good as staying with Dave, but still. S/he misses you. S/he wants to show you how well his/her career is going and s/he wants to take you to the desert to ride dune buggies around the camels. This stuff is important.

Friendship aside, though, the fact remains: Dubai is a toddler. It’s quite fun to go see a toddler, but realistically you’ll probably get more out of your trip once it’s grown up a bit and is able to speak in full sentences. Even better: visit it when it’s old enough to drink and vote. That’d be good.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Week 7: I return home

I got back late on Monday night. My lodger, Tom, was very excited about a joke he'd clearly been planning for some time.
"I don't want to make this into a big deal, because it really isn't, but I think I should just get it out of the way now. You know you went to BURNING MAN, right?" he said, breathlessly. "Well it was very nearly BURNING FLAT." Apparently I'd left a candle in a pot alight when I left, which makes me a dimwit, but really, it would have just gone out when it had done its stuff. Still, his pun gave him pleasure and who am I to deny him.

I'm afraid I haven't written a POTW this week. I am feeling bad about it, as it's only Week 7 of my new initiative and I'm already failing. I'm not feeling so bad about it, however, that I'm actually doing anything constructive to improve the situation. Instead I'm just fantasising about my lunch. Anyway. You've got five minutes spare that you wouldn't have had otherwise. I've basically given you the gift of time: please use it wisely. I will return in seven days with pithy insight and other good things.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Week 6: First Degree Burn

Everything I wrote last week was right. Buring Man is a place of immense privilege. But, just like they claimed, it is also the best party on earth, FACT, and it's impossible to attend without it changing you for the better.

Which is not to suggest that my experience was entirely positive. Quite the opposite: I found it an intense struggle at times. I cried more than once, I seriously considered leaving early, I felt desperate self-loathing and profound loneliness. And then, about halfway through, for no reason I can yet discern, things melted into place, and now I'm in Kentucky and I'm so sad it’s all over.

Things that happen at Burning Man:
  • There really is no money. You go to a party at night, you BYOC (where C = cup), you take a contribution of beers or vodka, you drink whatever cocktail they’re serving, you marvel at the effort they've gone to in creating this detailed, fully-functioning bar in the desert, asking nothing in return, and you’re staggered. You recall that a camp realised they had too much booze and so set up an impromptu bar for a night, and the next morning awoke to find they had more alcohol than they’d started with, and now you understand how that’s possible. One hot afternoon, you cycle round the playa and stumble across Chez Andrez, a mobile champagne bar. You comply with their ‘No Tache, No Service’ policy, stick on the furry black mustache they proffer, hold out your cup, sip the ice-cold Californian champagne they pour, and you’re grateful.
  • You cycle out on to the playa late on your first night, and there’s no light except that from the art, the hundreds of structures both fixed and moving that adorn the vast open space at the centre of the city, and you forget not to hoot, you lose any sense of James Dean cool. Just like you’d heard, the amount of time, money, energy and talent that’s gone into creating it all is overwhelming, and yes, it could probably have been better spent on hospitals, but we can’t be do-gooding all the time, and this is indubitably the most unique, breathtaking sight you’ve ever witnessed, and in a week it will be gone – you’re experiencing a matchless and staggeringly brief spectacle, and you’re so, so grateful.
  • And it really will be gone. Unless the playa is left immaculate, the state of Nevada will not allow the festival to continue. Every patch of ground where someone spills a beer and stains the lake bed must be dug up and replaced. In the whole week, you see only a handful of items of litter. One cigarette butt. One feather. One dried-out wet wipe. You go out at night, you drink a can of beer, you put the empty can in your bag and you take it home. There are no bins. Toilets are provided, but they’re maintained by volunteers – volunteers – and they’re immaculate. Toilet paper is almost always plentiful, the floors are clean, the seats are dry. A hundred times, you think about Glastonbury and realise it’s an embarrassment in comparison. You're in a place where all participants respect the event, the surroundings, each other and – mostly – themselves. It’s a rare treat to witness fifty thousand people behaving so sensibly, even if a lot of them are wearing no clothes and taking ill-advised quantities of acid. There is so much love here, you are enjoying new versions of human potential, and you're grateful.
  • You meet your neighbours, a Canadian couple in their forties who give their playa names as Rita and Artichoke. She changes her outfit two or three times daily, wearing a superhero costume with a cape, an elaborate beaded Indian headdress, bunny ears and a dust mask or a padlocked slave collar. He's generally naked but sometimes dons black briefs and a pair of pink muppet fur chaps that, on closer inspection, have clearly been fashioned from a pair of khaki chinos. Like so many others, they seem like a ‘normal’ couple who come to the playa once a year to express their individuality. After two days, you reluctantly admit to Artichoke that you’re struggling, that you feel like you don’t belong, that you’re having to try too hard, that you don’t fit in like the others, that your Marks and Spencer bikini, Primark sunglasses and ubiquitous Havaiana flip-flops are no match for the extraordinary freedom of expression and uniqueness exhibited by so many others. You expect him to look at you with pity, and he says that he woke up the day before and cried like a baby for half an hour, feeling exactly the same thing. You are so surprised, once again, at people’s openness, candour and kindness, and you're grateful.
  • One afternoon, you cycle the mile or so out to the Temple, a massive, ornate, plywood structure, and you read the thousands of messages that Burners have written on its walls for loved ones and for themselves. The Temple is burned on Sunday, the final night of the festival and, in comparison to the heady, slightly frattish burn of the Man on Saturday, it’s a cathartic experience. By Wednesday afternoon, the Temple is already covered in photographs and mementos that people have brought, and it’s extremely moving. You want to say it's cheesy, you want to scoff, but only a bitter old hag would mock these feelings. You sit on a bench outside, sniffling, and a girl in a makeshift toga playing a homemade harp starts a conversation with you that may end up changing your life. She hugs you, her friend hugs you, you feel your desire to scoff eking away and you're grateful.
  • Early on in the week, you realise you’ve brought far too much food and so on several occasions you stand on the corner of 8 and Graduation handing out slices of melon or lollipops. At times like these, other people are grateful. Some stop and chat, and one guy gives you his bike padlock when you tell him your friend’s lost his. The combination of the lost padlock was 1631. The replacement is 1361. You try hard not to get all ‘significant’ about an obviously meaningless coincidence, but you fail. For these few days, you feel – in spite of your firmly-held belief in the rational – that things are happening for a reason. It’s a heady sensation, exciting and peaceful, and you know it won't last, but it's a change in perspective, and for that newness you’re grateful.
  • Just when morning yoga starts to feel a bit competitive, an art car drives by playing dirty, expletive-riddled hip-hop at ground-shaking volumes, drowning out the teacher entirely. And, as you lie in shivasana at the end of the class, it’s tricky to meditate as a guy cycles past, announcing through a loud hailer, “We urgently need more lube.” And the gorgeous bear on the mat next to yours starts giggling too, and you head to the juice bar after practice and he shares his cup with you and tells you about a great-sounding party that’s happening that night at 8pm on the corner of 9 and Anniversary, and you head over there at the appointed time, and there’s no sign of anything which is so often the case because nothing ever works out how you expect, so you cycle round having other adventures until the castle-sized Trojan horse gets set on fire at midnight, and you watch it in a crowd of strangers, all of you talking and laughing, and the fire in the darkness is moving and powerful, and you've never seen anything like any of this before and you're so grateful.
  • And you’re cycling along the Esplanade in mid-afternoon, tanned except your feet and calves which are covered in a thick coating of white playa dust, and a girl hands you a pot of bubbles, and another guy mists you with water. And you pedal past the rollerdisco and the Thunderdome (where the couple got married the day before, their guests hanging off the metal structure above them), past a man playing a flaming tuba, and another guy on a bike is dragging a speaker behind him on a cart, and he starts to play the Star Wars theme tune and you KNOW it’s cheesy, but you can’t help what you love, and you reach into your bike basket and pull out a cold can of beer and hold it out behind you, and he smiles and accelerates to catch up, and he takes it from you like a relay baton. And yes, you’re grateful that he took your beer, because he accepted something that you offered freely, and it feels freaking fantastic.
  • And one afternoon you try to get involved by volunteering at the Lamplighters’ camp. You report for duty at 5pm, first washing and checking the hundreds of metal kerosene lamps with dozens of other volunteers, and then you're robed and your roles are explained. And there are Carriers, who hold a wooden beam across their shoulders, with six lamps hanging from six hooks on each side, weighing sixty pounds in total. And you are a Lifter so, working as a pair, you each use a long metal pole to take a lamp off the carrier, one removing from the left and one from the right so that the remaining weight is distributed evenly, and you walk solemnly over to the wooden lamppost, lift the lantern on the end of your pole high up to the wooden hook at the top of the lamppost, some fifteen feet above you. And there are about sixty lamps along all the four main avenues, and more around the Esplanade, so the whole process for your team (who cover the 3 to Plaza route) takes until 8:30pm, but eventually you’re done and all the other teams are too, and the city is lit, and of course the light from the lamps hardly carries any distance and is far overpowered by the neon brazenness of the art cars and sound stages, but the act of lighting the lamps each night, the theatre of it all, is a crucial part of the civic infrastructure, and although at times it smacks of AmDram lunacy, when so many burners shout, “Thank you lamplighters, we love you!” as you’re walking along in your white robe, you decide – yet again – to park that British cynicism and allow yourself to be swept along. And it's freeing, to allow yourself to just enjoy it even though it's a split infinitive, and for that liberation, you're grateful.
  • And of course, whatever spectacle is occurring directly in front of you, whether you’re having a good day or a bad day (and, without exception, everyone you speak to has had both), there is the desert – the staggering beauty of that extraordinary lunar whiteness, the heat, the wind, the dust, the flatness, the total lack of any vegetation, no trees, no birds, no water. It’s an unforgettable, peaceful, crazy, inspiring place, and anyone who witnesses it is surely grateful.
  • And on your penultimate morning you're doing yoga in a pair of leopard print leggings and a bikini top, and the girl two rows away is wearing skimpy black knickers, red and white striped stockings, black geek glasses and nothing else. You’re trying to feel zen while vaguely wondering how you’re going to get to Reno the next morning to catch the Greyhound back to San Francisco. After class, the guy next to you invites you and your friend back to his camp, introduces you to his daughter and their friends, makes you a delicious fruit smoothie and Vegemite on toast with mashed avocado, the first green vegetable you’ve seen in days. Eventually a plan forms and one of his campmates drives you back to your RV in his truck to pick up your luggage, a 45 minute round trip, for no reason other than to be nice. And maybe because he fancies you, who knows, who cares, you're grateful.
  • And on your last night, after the Man has burned and the fireworks have shattered your already broken mind, you’re wearing a fur coat and an EL wire headdress, handing out cookies by a flaming metal structure, and a girl asks, “Is there any LSD in them?” and you say, “No.” And she says, “Oh well then, no thanks.”
  • And too soon it's the next morning, and you have bruises all over your back from having to break into your RV at 2am to get the last of your possessions, and two men in their seventies drive you the four hours back to Reno and won't accept any money towards gas, but tip the bellboy at their casino hotel $20 to look after you. And the casino is a terrible shock after days without financial transactions, but the swimming pool contains water, and you haven’t been wet for six days, and by god, you’re grateful yet again.

So yes, it’s self-indulgent and it’s absurd and everything I described above is true, but really I've told you none of it. It's not really possible to articulate what it's like and only a real dimwit would try to describe it in a blog. It is by no means a vacation, it’s prohibitively expensive for many, and it is categorically not for everyone. If sex, drugs or deafening dubstep at 7am upset you then it will be a challenge. But in this modern world of overpowering media, fear, uniformity and corporate greed, a week in the desert with no dollars, no advertising, no mobile phones, no labels, no nothing – it’s a life-changing shift in perspective that I can only hope I cherish forever. I apologise wholeheartedly to my two RV campmates who witnessed me at my worst on far too many occasions, but if they looked at the right time, they also saw me at my best and – no surprises here – for the experience I had, the highest of highs and the darkest of lows, I am profoundly grateful.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Week 5: Money to burn(ing man)

When this appears on the internet, I will be far away from computers – or, at least, far away from ones I can access – so I’ve set this to post on a schedule, one of a million minutiae I’ve had to consider in advance of leaving for the States. For, all being well, it is there that I am as you read this, across the pond in the Big Country, on an elaborate bankrupting mission that will take me from San Francisco to Yosemite, Reno, the Nevada desert, Kentucky and Chicago. And, if we've managed to adhere to our itinerary, at the peak of this particular week I’ll be camped on the playa at the Burning Man festival and hopefully having the time of my little life.

When I went to my first festival in 2009, the whole experience left me as wide-eyed as I get, which is not really very much at all, actually, because I am battle-hardened and deep-down-insecure and don't want anyone to catch me exhibiting signs of weakness, of which enthusiasm definitely is one. You wouldn’t catch James Dean hooting with crazed excitement just because he was finally in a place where it’s not just acceptable but positively encouraged to regard a pint of Pimm’s as a healthy breakfast option. If Dean wouldn’t hoot, then I wouldn’t either.

But inside I was delighted. From the word go, I loved the seeming equality of festivals, the freedom and the acceptance, the yes-she's-eighteen-stone-and-wearing-a-tiny-bikini-and-a-tutu-and-that's-totally-cool-ness of it all. Inevitably there were a few grey areas, but basically, festivals appeared to be a brief stretch of time and space when everyone came together for the same reason under the same skies. I took to it like a lonely, fat millionaire takes to internet porn.

And then Andrew, eyes wide, tone wistful, told me about Burning Man: a festival in the Black Rock desert, the second largest flat region in the Northern Hemisphere. It's been going since the late eighties and now has about 50,000 participants, so it’s still a lot smaller than, for example, Glastonbury (which sold around 170,000 tickets this year). But the real difference isn’t size: Burning Man is an experiment in community and “radical self-reliance.” Held in the middle of a fearsome patch of prehistoric lakebed, the festival is off-grid. There’s no permanent infrastructure, there are no roads, no hospitals or shops, and there's no money. It's a city that exists for one week out of every 52, and then vanishes without trace. Any art vehicles have to adhere to the speed limit of 5mph. The one store sells only coffee and ice. Burners have to bring everything they need for the week, all food, drink and shelter, and if you don't have enough water when they check at the gate, they'll make you turn back. It’s too hot to do much during the day except cycle round and look at the plentiful community art, but at night the temperature drops from 40 to 5, people don their crazy costumes and the weird shit continues by the light of the moon and generator-powered neon. There are a lot of extraordinary outfits, naked people, strange sex acts, illegal drugs and dust storms.

From the moment I heard about it, I knew it was a world away from the corporate safety of Glastonbury. In January this year, I booked my ticket.

You can tell I’m a late adopter – 2011 is the first year that Burning Man has ever sold out. I’m following the curve and, since I committed to go, have read many articles discussing the fact that BM’s ideals can’t work quite so well in practice as they do on paper. Even before I left the UK, Burning Man taught me something significant: radical self-reliance doesn't come cheap. I’ve haemorrhaged money on a range of extraordinary items in order to participate fully: a gold catsuit, wigs, a fleece tiger costume, adhesive jewels, metres of glow-in-the-dark EL wire, walkie talkies (there's no phone reception in the desert), goggles for duststorms, neon facepaint, a fake fur coat for the cold nights, a book about palmistry and a billion pairs of earplugs. Then there's my flight to the States of course, and the cost of hiring the gas-guzzling 32 foot RV where my friends and I will sleep. Most people camp in tents but shifting that amount of gear across the Atlantic wasn't feasible so it had to be an RV. We'll no doubt spend hundreds of dollars on supplies and we've also had to rent bicycles so we can get around the vastness of the playa once we're parked up. Trying to argue that this festival is about radical self-reliance is about as silly as claiming that EastEnders is about being a Londoner. Yeah, you need to be pretty organised to get the most out of it but, way more than hot planning skills, you need cold hard cash.

We are three selfish, well-off chancers, leaving one luxurious existence and spending thousands between us to fund the most extravagant camping trip of our lives. I’m under no illusions - this is not reality, it’s not sustainable and, regardless of what the website claims, this week in the dust can't really be about equality. It isn't only us foreigners who are blowing huge chunks of cash on this crazy adventure - take a look here at the effort that's been ploughed into developing one of the numerous theme camps. How many man hours have been contributed by how many skilled, creative individuals? I’m fascinated: who are these people with so much time, talent and money and why are they choosing to spend them on this? Will I get to the playa and feel sick at the waste, the short-termness of it all, or will I be swept along with the extraordinary, rare, raw creativity of it all? Probably both. Of course it's a good thing: it's about love, it's entirely voluntary, it's participatory, inclusive, challenging, free from corporate sponsorship; it's real, it's sexy, it's extreme, it's a one-off. But surely it's also kidding itself if it thinks it's not about the money...? And then again - who the hell am I to say what people should do with their hard-earned dollars? What's wrong with spending hundreds of hours and bucks on an unforgettable life experience? Sure, that time and money could be invested in US healthcare policy or African AIDS prevention - but am I seriously so burdened with middle-class guilt that I think no one's allowed to be selfish and irresponsible once in a while?

Readers, as you scroll down this page, I'll be doing my level best to answer all those questions and more, through a pleasant haze of boxed white wine and playadust. I’m fairly sure I’ll be learning, which - apart from drinking white wine - is pretty much my favourite thing to do. And I’ll certainly have many opportunities to hone my ‘I’m not shocked’ face as some dusty dwarf threeway takes place a few feet from where I’m standing. (They’re big on dwarves at Burning Man, it seems). A while ago, I was chatting online to a guy who’s been to Burning Man seven times, and I asked him if he had any advice for a newbie. He told me to take good, warm fancy dress costumes, buy some EL wire to make sure my bicycle could be easily identified in a pile of a hundred at three in the morning, and to make sure I was unattached when I go. That was in June and I've been his devoted girlfriend since July so, despite his advice, I'll be firmly set to look-but-don't-touch mode. Doesn't mean I can't enjoy myself though: for all the killjoy moralising, I'm still FREAKING EXCITED. Burning Man is allegedly the best party in the world, and I've got a ticket. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Week 4: I get cross with The X Factor

As you will of course be aware, I am a prodigiously bright woman in my mid-thirties, in possession of an impressive selection of carefully-honed views on equality, race and national politics, as well as all my faculties. In addition to my fierce intellect, I am fortunate to be staggeringly gifted in a wide range of career millieux and more traditional yet impressive pastimes. I also pride myself on my supreme humility. Impossible though it may be for you to accept, however, I am not bionic. Alongside my clear superiority in almost every field of human existence, I remain (embarrassingly attractive) flesh and blood with base needs and desires, just like all you less fortunate weaklings. There are chinks in my armour.

Yes, yes, Libya’s in turmoil, Gaddafi’s gaddafied, there remains much riot fall-out in London, the global economy still looks less healthy than the contents of a festival longdrop, but when it comes to my pulse, nothing else has set it racing of late quite like the prospect of The X Factor 2011. Of course it is beneath me. Of course it perpetuates almost everything that’s wrong with society: the desperate craving for celebrity, money and adoration; the idea that working nine to five in a normal job is for losers; Dermot O’Leary. But, like squeezing a medium sized spot less than two hours before a vital social occasion, even though it is obviously not in my own best interests, I cannot resist.  

And so the new series began on Saturday, and I watched it on Sunday afternoon, and there were the three new judges, all of whom seemed OK, none of whom made up for the loss of Cowell. And the first contestant was a teenager with messy hair so contrived it made Lady Gaga look laissez-faire, and Dermot O’Loveshimself asked him why he was there, and Hairboy said it was because he wanted to be famous, and wanted to get lots of girls, and then it just happened to emerge (because he volunteered the anecdote without any prompting whatsoever, on stage, during his audtion, in front of the judges and 8000 people at the O2 arena, and now the nation) that he’d been on holiday and had the name of seven girls tattooed on his bum, and before you know it, his jeans and boxers are down and he’s showing the judges his frankly odd buttocks, in that there doesn't seem to be much of a cleft and there are definitely too many spots for a national TV airing, but I'm not meant to be noticing that, I'm meant to be looking at the ill-advised black font depicting, yes, the names of seven girls, and no one asks him about the significance of the names, whether these are conquests or fantasies or just maybe moniker ideas for his first daughter. And then he sings and it’s average, y’know, it’s just fine, but of course he gets through to the next round because he’s a cheeky teenager who reminds Louis of ‘a young Robbie’. And I’m sighing and huffing and rolling my eyes and losing faith with the world, and I haven't enjoyed myself so much in ages.

And everything else continues pretty unremarkably (with the brief exception of a certifiable Asian lady with a stomach bug, who stands retching near Dermot for a tantalisingly long time before going on stage, disappointingly never actually covering him with the vomit he so deserves), until we get near the end of the hour, and a doll-like girl walks on stage - she’s Janet, she’s sixteen and from Northern Ireland, and tells everyone who’ll listen that she’s from a really quiet place and there’s not much to do there, as if that fact alone will get her through to boot camp, although it’s clearly the production team trying to pull on our heartstrings, but I am a grown woman from London and it will take a lot more than THAT to manipulate me. And she's impossibly marketable as she bites her lower lip winningly, looks coquettishly up through her eyelashes and tucks her hair behind her ear, and then she tells us she's going to sing Your Song "by Elton John." And I make a gutteral noise indicating utter frustration, and flail about on the sofa with rage at what is about to happen, and then she begins her effort and it sounds like this:

If you were able to stop the bile rising at the ridiculous twee-ness of her performance, which should clearly only be played over footage of a miniature pink unicorn eating vanilla cupcakes at the end of a rainbow, you might be forgiven for thinking that she has an iota of innate talent. Unless, however, you had the misfortune of seeing a John Lewis ad at the end of 2010, which had this as its soundtrack:

Anything familiar here? Something "A LITTLE BIT FUNNY"? Let's all stroke our chins rhythmically while saying, "Hmmmm...", because what Janet has done is to replicate another version precisely, to perform a cover of a cover, changing absolutely nothing except the vowel sound of ‘song’ to something approximating 'sawrng', hamming up her Northern Irish roots so that the TV producers can put the deposit down for a second home in Mauritius. OK, she’s only sixteen and she can clearly sing (if you like that kind of breathy, whimsical, I-believe-in-fairies schmaltz) but they’re meant to be looking for a superstar and I don’t know about you, but in my book, being a superstar is about originality. So throughout her two minute performance, I naively, weakly hope that the judges will mention this, make even a tiny hint that she isn’t quite a musical wunderkind, that they don’t need to call off the search just yet, but no, the song ends and they’re all on their feet, gushing, visibly shocked at her brilliance, and I forgive Kelly Rowland because it’s possible that she doesn't know the Ellie Goulding version, but Gary Barlow surely spends his entire shopping life in John Lewis and listening to Radio 2: the chances of him not knowing that Janet’s just played the CD to death and imitated what she’d heard are zero.

And Janet bites her lip again and looks all emotional as she’s told she’s through to the next round, and all over the UK, grannies wipe a tear away and thousands of reality show hopefuls get the message that originality is dangerous, that imitation is what’s needed, and I switch off the TV in despair and book a return flight to Australia, where I plan to go to the jungle, capture a lyre bird, play it whatever shit ballad is currently sweeping the nation, enter it into next year’s X Factor, and win. Interview that, Dermot.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Week 3: Friends, morons, c(o)untrymen

At the end of the last POTW, I asked whether I should cull those Facebook friends whose views I felt were abhorrent. It is now a few days later and I have been overwhelmed and moved by the intensity of the feedback, with literally five people contributing their opinions.

A whopping 80% of the respondents (four people) said I should maintain my connection with the bigots, although their reasons for tolerance varied. My pragmatic reader, Dalrymple, reminded me that being Facebook friends with irritating people causes increased cardiovascular action and is thus a cheap form of exercise. Matt suggested that, if I really want anything to change, I must stay friends with those I find objectionable and keep writing instructive blog posts in the hope that they might read them and become less prejudiced. And, in a flashback from pretty much every meal we've ever eaten together, my mother also said I shouldn’t defriend, because “everyone is entitled to their opinions whether they agree with you or not.”

The commenter whose advice most made me cock my head to one side in thought, however, was Hannah, who said that if she defriended all the people who annoyed her on FB, she’d end up with hardly any friends. Poor Hannah, I thought. What an awfully sad state of affairs it is when the majority of your online connections are irritating.

Then I looked at my own friend list. And I made a pie.

The best Facebookers by far are those who write funny or inspiring status updates, regularly share photos and post intelligent links to material elsewhere on the internet so that I learn new things. It doesn’t matter whether I know these people in real life or not: they actively contribute to my enjoyment of Facebook, are improving my life and I’m thoroughly glad they exist.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 11

Cull chances: zero. These people are the reason I am on Facebook.

Givers on coke, the Overloader offers so much information that my News Feed becomes plagued by their insignificant ramblings. A well-timed, pithy statement about something current? Yes please. A two paragraph, ill-informed rant about something that happened last week is not so welcome, however, nor is a tepid anecdote about your toddler getting its facepaint on your curtains. And I don’t care that you’re at Heathrow, or that you’re tired, or that you had a totally fabulous weekend!!!!?!!? Either teach me something valuable, make me laugh, or shut up.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 5
Cull chances: low. ‘Hide’ chances, however, are sky high. The ‘Hide’ button is a diplomatic godsend, and I use it liberally. You’re protected from your friends’ dullness AND you avoid having to bludgeon them. Win win.

By far my least-liked category, and also the largest, Takers are those people who are good fun in real life but who, online, are basically mute. They don’t comment on posts, don’t often upload photos and they haven’t clicked ‘like’ on my blog’s fanpage. These are the selfish FB users, enjoying the effort others put into the site but giving little in return.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 39

Cull chances: low. Despite gaining almost nothing from my connection with them on the site and having several alternative means to contact them outside FB, I can’t defriend them as it would be awkward if they noticed. See, I am politeness personified.

Takers but without the real life appeal: like a wheelie bin, I’d consider it an minor irritation to bump into them in the street. I’m basically only FB friends with Mehs because I panic that the moment I defriend them, I’ll immediately need to reach them about some sort of unique job opportunity.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 32

Cull chances: low. There’s no real point ditching any of this lot – they don’t DO anything on FB so they’re easily ignored.

Pity Votes
These are FB friends who I accepted because I felt sorry for them. Includes those with single-digit friend counts and my mother.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 2
Cull chances: zero. I can't be responsible for anyone else self-harming.

A small category of miscellaneous FB users that I’m not sure how to handle. Includes someone’s baby (WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO?) and a deranged German chef.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 2
Cull chances: moderate.

The Exempt category consists of celebrities, and they can do what the hell they like. The sight of their names popping up on my News Feed brightens my day in the superficial way that only a weak-minded idiot such as myself can appreciate.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 1
Cull chances: zero.

Those of my FB friends that I actively dislike, the Wanker category might include (but is not limited to) neo-liberals, bigots, filterless self-obsessives, those who think skiing is a basic human right, evangelical Christians, blinkered vegans, superficial idiots working in the Middle East, car obsessives, self-aggrandising career pushers and apostrophe haters. I became FB friends with them innocently, thinking we had something in common, but gradually it emerged that in fact they are misguided people with some rank and depressing views, which have at times brought me to tears at the hopelessness of our society’s situation – for how can things improve when educated people spout such tripe?
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 9
Cull chances: ay, here’s the rub. Yes Mum, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if I find someone's spurious spurtings objectionable, I don’t have to accept them soiling my Newsfeed. Why should Wankers get the benefit of my friendship on Facebook (for, of course, I am an exemplary FB Giver)? Why should they have the privilege of enjoying my exceptional photos, smirking at my wry status updates and becoming better dinner party guests having read the fascinating links I circulate? Surely they should be punished for their sins: I should defriend. But I know I can't, because to do so would be to ignore reality. I live in enough of a left-leaning bubble already without pulling the velvet curtains tight around me and blocking out all dissenting perspectives; I wouldn't be much of a grownup if I could only bear those whose opinions exactly matched my own. I'm actually a big fan of tolerance and a fully paid up member of the Variety Is The Spice Of Life Society – I know it’s important that I stay abreast of all views, not least as a vital aid to understanding my own father. And Matt's right: maybe, just maybe, one day they'll read something I write and change their mind about something. That would feel pretty freaking good. Preaching to the converted is fun up to a point, but everyone likes a challenge.

And so, we have our answer, and (as always) it is love. Love All The People. The realisation that I only really like being Facebook friends with about 11% of the total is a little depressing, but I also have a newfound appreciation for the Wankers and have grudgingly admitted that my online life would be a lot more narrow and boring without them. So for once it's a pleasingly straightforward solution: do nothing. The cull is cancelled.

Same time next week.